Berners Tavern – Berners Street
Posted on December 1, 2014
Jason Atherton is a modern day Midas. His prospects have yielded so many nuggets of restaurant gold he’s caused a feverish migration. A manic rush not seen since California circa 1850. Everyone wants their own shake of the gold pan, their own seat at an Atherton table and the inevitable dunk into a dippy egg that goes with it. These overzealous gannets are the reason I’ve only just made it to Berners Tavern more than a year after its opening. And even then I only manage Sunday brunch.
The most depressing thing is that he’s just about everywhere. As ubiquitous as pulled pork. He hasn’t just got one decent restaurant I can’t get a table at; he’s got 5 in London alone. I’m sure I’d have the same problem in Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai, all of which are now Atherton occupied. His incredibly successful blueprint flutters from so many conquering flagpoles worldwide, Gengis Khan would’ve been proud.
But I’d be surprised if there was a more impressive dining room in his empire than Berners Tavern. Masquerading behind its lowly title is a restaurant as much a pub as Pollen Street Social is a working men’s club.
From its street entrance the glass vestibule provided a necessary moment to take it all in. Its towering gold walls were adorned with interlocking paintings and photographs of various sizes, a carefully considered jumble of subjects and styles patchworked to stunning effect. The five-metre high bar was backlit orange like a huge lump of liquor-preserving amber that needed carabiners and a harness to negotiate. Stuccoed ceilings, ornate and reminiscent, loomed over modern insertions: the automatic glass doors between the kitchen and restaurant floor (the first of their kind I’ve seen) were slick and silent, lifted straight from a Bond villain’s lair. And then there was the space. Acres of it. Enough room for a few suitcases either side of your table and an expansive game of footsie. It was truly magnificent.
The first dish was not so. Dressed prawns and lobster came in a coupe glass with finely sliced lettuce, croutons and unwelcome cubes of jelly. A mouthful of fishy aspic is an unpleasant thing. You can’t help but think of the leftover gunk in a Billingsgate fridge or the geometric ejaculate of some ocean trench-dwelling eyesore.
A swig of a different cocktail – a gin and elderflower concoction – gladly reset the palate, with the barman being kind enough to peg a clipping of dill to the glass’ edge like a sort of love toy for your nostrils. They’d thought of everything.
They’d certainly put some thought into improving the dreary monotony of a risotto. I never order risotto, but this autumnal nest of pumpkin and Parmesan was home to the most fragile of bread crumbed quail eggs, meaty shreds of ham hock and kale crisps. It was one of the nicer starters I’ve had in recent memory.
Cod isn’t high up on my priorities either, most of the time it’s bland and flaky but Head Chef Phil Carmichael’s offering was neither. Its gruyere and herb crust, the accompanying gnochetti with braised leeks and clams and purple sprouting broccoli made a wonderful plate of a fish I only tend to enjoy when its battered and served with chips.
The pulled pork bun was about as good as they get, with pickles and the best chips I’ve had in London. A bottle of Heinz Ketchup was plonked rather unceremoniously alongside, totally incongruous to its surroundings but in keeping with the breeziness of brunch. The same excuse saw the day’s menu seat eggs and pancakes alongside roasts, sandwiches and sharing dishes, with a snippet of a la carte thrown in for good measure. The Sunday menu is a mixed bag and hotely in the extreme, but what little we tasted of it was very good.
Berners Tavern is Atherton’s behemoth. Its grandiosity is striking and, visually, it’s exceptional, but after that it’s much like the rest of his fleet. The cooking is proficient and inventive, the service professional albeit brisk. Undoubtedly it’s a success – another exemplary model in Atherton’s guide to restauranteuring – but does it necessarily make for the very finest of dining experiences? Commenting on my Sunday experience, no. Not when you can’t help but feel slightly negligible in its vastness; like you’re just another diner impersonally handled on the systematic conveyor belt of the day’s covers.
Its blanket magnetism and the franchised impression of its core offering will prevent Berners Tavern from ever entering the pantheon of personal favourites; but having said that, I’ll certainly be back for dinner.